Mining industry to tackle 'unacceptable' rise in deaths

The Minerals Council of South Africa launched a National Day of Safety and Health in Mining, calling the "current crisis" unacceptable.  

The initiative will see all 66 mining companies who are members of the industry body holding safety and health days at their operations over the coming month.

There have been 58 mining deaths in 2018 alone, up from 51 in 2017, which was also an increase from the 2016 fatality figures.

Sibanye-Stillwater [JSE:SGL] has accounted for 20 of these deaths, and faces the wrath of trade unions and the Department of Mineral Resources.

CEO Neal Froneman said the high number of fatalities at their operations has been "traumatic".  

"We’ve stumbled as an industry. We’ve definitely stumbled, but our resolve is clear and evident in terms of getting back on track and breaking through the barrier and getting back down to our zero-harm targets," Froneman told the media after the launch on Friday.

Under apartheid, scores of people died every year in unsafe working conditions in the mining industry.  

The Minerals Council of SA, previously the Chamber of Mines, points out an 80% improvement in safety over the last two decades and the industry is working towards  goal of zero-harm by 2024.  

Trade unions have blamed mining companies for pressuring miners to work in unsafe conditions and putting profit over lives. But Minerals Council Vice President: Andile Sangqu said there wasn't one single reason behind the rise in fatalities, as the accidents have been of a different nature: falls of rock, underground fires and employees entering unsafe areas.

Froneman, who is also a Vice President of the Minerals Council, said that improving safety was a combination of continuously engineering out risk and changing people’s attitudes to encourage them to withdraw from unsafe conditions.  

Production at all costs?  

According to Chris Griffith, CEO of Anglo-American Platinum and head of the CEO's zero-harm forum, mining bosses are required to be visible to set the example from the top down and show that it’s not about production at all costs. 

He said that some of the successful changes made include reducing miners’ exposure when entering a workplace for the first time after blasting, and introducing bolts and nets inside mining stopes.  

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has demanded that mines invest in seismic detection technologies, but Froneman says that there are no instruments currently on the market to foresee vibrations and earthquakes.  

Seismic activity can lead to falls of ground, a contributing factor to mining deaths underground.   

Froneman said that the layout and engineering of mines must be able to withstand seismic activity and ensure no workers are harmed.  

The highest number of fatalities are in the gold and platinum sectors, as these are labour intensive, and mining companies in the gold sector work on narrow tabular reefs where no practical mechanisation has yet been developed to replace human beings.  

Companies in the two sectors; Lonmin [JSE:LON], Impala Platinum [JSE:IMP] and Gold Fields [JSE:GFI] are planning to retrench more than 27 000 workers within the next three years. However, Dr Sizwe Phakathi, the head of safety and sustainable development, doesn’t believe the rise in mining accidents is related to the looming job losses.  

Phakathi pointed to Lonmin, which is planning to retrench 12 600 workers over the next three years, while the company has managed to avoid any fatalities for over a year.

Chief Inspector at the Department of Mineral Resources David Msiza said the industry could not continue to talk about zero-harm but not show demonstrable results.

"We do receive complaints that employees are being victimised after withdrawing from unsafe conditions," Msiza said. 

Correction: This article was updated to clarify that Chris Griffith is the CEO of Anglo-American Platinum, and not of Anglo-American. 

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